For the late California figurative painter Joan Brown art was a vehicle for exploration of the self in all of its physical, emotional and spiritual wonder. Separated from her first husband and recently graduated from the California School of Fine Arts (now the San Francisco Art Institute), Brown engaged the heady atmosphere and sense of freedom that San Francisco’s Beat scene and nascent Funk movement provided.
In a tight-knit creative community of her peers, including Jay De Feo, Wally Hedrick, Bruce Conner, and her second husband Manuel Neri, Brown made large works with incredibly thick paint that claimed as their subjects her immediate and personal surroundings.
The 1960s and 1970s
A 2020 Venus Over Manhattan gallery exhibition in New York surveyed a particularly productive decade in Joan Brown art career, from the late 1960s through the late 1970s. Comprising a dozen major paintings, many not seen for decades, the exhibition featured a major painting titled Grey Wolf with Red Clouds and Dark Tree, from 1968, exhibited publicly for the first time since Marcia Tucker’s exhibition, “Early Work: Lynda Benglis, Joan Brown, Luis Jimenez, Gary Stephan, Lawrence Weiner” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in 1982.
Newly remarried for the third time, and registering the influence of Henri Rousseau, Brown made a series of paintings of animals in stylized landscapes. The following year, Brown moved with her husband, Gordon Cook, to Rio Vista, California, where she continues to develop an increasingly personal vocabulary of forms, rendered in ever more stylized compositions.
Registering the impact of major shifts in her family life, including her father’s death in 1969, and her mother’s suicide six weeks later, Brown’s paintings became increasingly symbolic in the 1970s, and featured flatly painted compositions with suggestive animals. She began painting on four by eight foot sheets of masonite with household enamel paint and incorporating glitter — paintings in which she claimed to feel like a “participant,” large enough for her to walk into.
Two of these paintings, Devil Standing on Fish (1970) and Sara as Eve with Fish and Bird (1970) featured prominently in the Venus exhibition, foregrounding the symbolic nature of her work from this period.
The 1970s also saw Brown center her own image in her practice, undertaking a series of self-portraits in which she features prominently or is represented by a hybrid figure as a surrogate.
When Brown and Cook moved back to San Francisco in 1971, swimming took a central position in her life. She swam frequently in the treacherous waters of the San Francisco Bay, and began working with former Olympic swim coach Charlie Sava, who had an outsized impact on Brown’s painting as well.
Evidencing this influence, a pair of paintings from 1973/1974, titled respectively The Swimmers #1 (Diving) and The Swimmers #2 (The Crawl), are reunited at Venus for the first time since Brown’s retrospective exhibition at the Berkeley Art Museum in 1974.
Brown and Cook loved to get dressed up and go dancing, and as if to commemorate these memories, Brown completed a series of some twenty works between 1971 and 1973 that she referred to as the Dancers series. One of the largest works from this group, Dancers in the City #2, a monumentally scaled diptych, features centrally in this exhibition.
Later in life
Brown’s marriage to Cook ended in 1976, and in its aftermath her work became increasingly oriented toward the spiritual until her untimely death in 1990 at the age of 52. In 1977, she began traveling extensively to Egypt, China and India, and subsequently affected another overhaul of her painterly style, as seen in The Long Journey from 1981. Due in large part to her numerous stylistic shifts, her desire for independence, and her skepticism toward the art world, Brown’s place in the narrative of late 20th century American art has been under recognized, a situation complicated by her regionalist associations with Bay Area Figuration.
About Joan Brown
Joan Brown was born in 1938 in San Francisco. She received her BFA and MFA from the California School of Fine Arts in 1959, and 1960, respectively.
Brown’s work has been the subject of numerous solo presentations, including recent exhibitions at the Richmond Art Center, the San Jose Museum of Art, and the Oakland Museum of California. Her work is held in the collections of many public institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Carnegie Museum of Art.
Brown died in Puttaparthi, India, in 1990.